In this undated photo released by Hunter College High School, Elena Kagan raises her arm during a class trip to Philadelphia, in a photo from the school's 1977 yearbook.
A couple of hours after the President announced that he had appointed Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, two veterans of the battle for women’s rights ran into each other at the Fairway super market on Broadway. They were overjoyed.
“Amazing!” exclaimed Ronnie Eldridge. “It’s just amazing to see how far we’ve come.”
The other woman, Ellen Cohen, a feminist writer, exclaimed: “Can you believe it? It’s unbelievable!”
Eldridge, a former councilwoman, told me about the meeting. “We were so happy. We never believed we’d see the day when three women would be on the Supreme Court.”
“When I look back at my life, I remember how difficult it was to get a woman appointed to the civil court,” Eldridge said, referring to New York’s lowest court. As a political activist, she has spent much of her life trying to get women appointed to major positions in government or the courts.
Eldridge was special assistant to Mayor Lindsay and later ran the state women’s division for Governor Mario Cuomo. When she ran unsuccessfully for county leader back in the sixties the Tammany boss, she recalls, growled to Eldridge’s husband: “Why don’t you keep her chained in your house?”
I reached another longtime warrior in the battle for women’s rights, Sarah Kovner, who said: “I’m very happy. It’s just fantastic. Not only is she a woman. She’s a West Sider! It makes us all very proud.”
Gloria Steinem was more restrained about the Kagan case than the others. “It’s certainly a step in the right direction,” she said. “The court has swung so hard to the right that it may be hard to reverse the trend. But Ms. Kagan has proved in her life that she is a consensus builder and I hope she can help move the court in a new direction.”
Letty Pogrebin said of the appointment: “I love it! This will provide a critical mass. You need that to change things.
“One woman Supreme Court justice would be a breakthrough; two is company; three starts to feel a bit more normal. Remember that women represent 52% of the population and an even larger proportion of the voters.’’
Pogrebin added: “I’m not a bean counter. But I can appreciate the psychic power of knowing that three judges have lived their lives as women.”
Pogrebin, who has two daughters and a son, says: “ I remember the first time I saw two women conducting the service in our temple, a woman rabbi and a woman cantor. It was a seismic moment -- and this Kagan appointment, if it’s confirmed, is a revolutionary step too.”
Betsy Gotbaum, the former Public Advocate and an aide to Mayor Lindsay when the feminist movement was growing, was enthusiastic. “Smart women from New York are doing us all proud. She is New York . It’s very exciting.”
Liz Abzug is the daughter of Bella Abzug, the fiery congresswoman and liberal Democrat, who was a major player in the politics of the 60s and 70s.
Liz Abzug told me: “My mother would have loved this appointment. Like Bella, Kagan is a born and bred West Sider and she seems to have followed an incredible route to get there. Like Bella she has links to Hunter too.
“My mom was a poker player like Kagan and a baseball fan. The only difference is that Kagan is a Met fan and Bella was always a Yankee fan. But Bella would probably forgive her for that. When you read Kagan’s biography, she reminds me of my mom.”
You can understand how the Kagan appointment has made West Side liberals and feminists generally nostalgic for the good old days.
Their struggle has borne fruit. The appointment of Kagan should make us all feel good. When she helped found the National Organization for Women back in the sixties, she got a mixed reaction from the public. But gradually the movement won many sympathizers.
In 1970, NOW organized the Women’s Strike for Equality. Tens of thousands of woman [and some sympathetic men] marched down Fifth Avenue to a rally in Bryant Park.
The new society that Friedan advocated was one in which men and women were equal. It was a revolutionary concept for that time. But, gradually, her ideas have taken hold.
The Kagan appointment, if it’s confirmed, will mark another step in the progress of women -- and men -- toward a nation where gender and other divisions disappear-. And we can build a society that’s more just and happier.